The best definition of “conventional wisdom” that I’ve yet seen comes from Mark Sisson over at Mark’s Daily Apple. He describes it as “a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn.” In my opinion, Sisson nails it: “conventional wisdom” is a lumbering phrase, a lazy phrase, one that allows us to abandon our responsibility to think deeply about a subject.
One piece of conventional wisdom I often hear coming from the extreme right has to do with the evils of regulation and, in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency. This conventional wisdom claims that the EPA is bloated with power and runs around with the subtle (but primary) purpose of making life more difficult for business and more expensive for the rest of us, sucking jobs out of our economy the way leeches suck the blood from those who wade through swamps.
But what if that weren’t always true? What if the EPA actually created jobs?
Several years ago the EPA decided to come down pretty hard on sulfur dioxide, a nasty little chemical compound that often spouts from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, particularly old ones. According to an EPA presentation issued by the Office of Air and Radiation, SO2 is associated with narrowing of the airways and increased asthmatic symptoms, and, given that it often combines with other particulates, can also lead to serious respiratory problems such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Importantly, even short-term exposure can lead to increased symptoms.
So the EPA decided to tighten the standards a bit, and then sat back to await the doomsday predictions as the extreme right shouted about the leeching of even more lifeblood from the economy.
Well: guess what? Thousands of jobs have been created.
Here’s the scenario: unlike the conventional wisdom that would suggest plants shutting down and jobs moving overseas, these plants and jobs can’t really go anywhere. We need the power they generate, and it won’t come from China or Singapore packed in plastic like an iPod. Meanwhile, the work that needs to be done to retrofit these plants also must be done here, on site, by engineers and construction workers. As a result, such companies are hiring workers as fast as they can find them; one company I’m aware of plans to hire 300 people this year just for this kind of work. And while it’s true that these retrofits cost money—a lot of money—that money shows up in the paychecks of employees—U.S. employees. It stays right here. It just gets moved around a bit.
I’m not naïve, of course. I understand that regulations can and do cost jobs, can and do cause companies to close plants and move them overseas, can and do slow down innovation and growth. I’d be the first in line to argue that massive amounts of regulatory power lead to no good at all. But the conventional wisdom on the far, far right says that such losses are always the case.
The real danger of accepting the conventional wisdom is that it shuts down conversation. Nobody bothers discussing what they believe is obvious. As a result, we slip into our comfortably polarized belief systems and add our shouting voices to the cacophony.
Only, in this case, maybe the obvious, isn’t. And maybe it would be interesting to have that conversation.